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Unpaid Workers Storm Hamas Parliament

Dozens of Palestinian civil servants stormed a parliamentary session on Wednesday to demand long-overdue salaries, attacking Hamas lawmakers and forcing the parliament speaker to flee the building. No injuries were reported.

There may be hope for the Palestinian Authority. It's reported that Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, who has been seeking to raise money for the financially strapped government, returned to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday with a suitcase full of cash, officials said, possibly as much as $20 million.

This second attack on the parliament this week, along with the shooting death of a Hamas gunmen in the Gaza Strip, cast doubt on renewed efforts by leaders of the rival Fatah and Hamas parties to halt their increasingly deadly infighting.

President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, who was elected separately last year, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas agreed late Tuesday to start a weeklong series of meetings to try to reach an agreement over a proposal that implicitly recognizes the Jewish state. The two men, joined by senior security commanders, continued their talks on Wednesday.

In other developments:

  • A Hamas militant was shot and killed Wednesday outside his home in the Gaza town of Khan Younis after Hamas gunmen shot a security commander loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas in the town. Hamas accused the Preventive Security agency of shooting the militant, and later set the commander's home on fire. Preventive Security officials said the commander's mother and family were in the building.
  • An Israeli army inquiry found that a Palestinian mine, not an Israeli army shell, was responsible for the killing of seven family members on a Gaza beach last week. But Israel is having a hard time selling this version of events, reports . Palestinians say it's a whitewash and that Israel is refusing to take responsibility for a massacre they describe as state terrorism. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also expressed doubts. He and the Palestinians say it's absurd that militants would plant a mine on a crowded Gaza beach.
  • In Paris, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed Wednesday to "make every effort" to resume negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, although he also insisted that attacks must stop first. Olmert, meeting with French President Jacques Chirac, also said previous accords and Israel's right to existence must be recognized.

    The angry crowd of civil servants, which had been demonstrating outside the parliament building, burst into the hall and pelted Hamas lawmakers with water bottles, tissue boxes and other small items.

    "We are hungry. We are hungry," the protesters screamed.

  • During the melee, some demonstrators climbed onto lawmakers' desks. At one point, security guards broke up a scuffle between two female lawmakers. Lawmakers and demonstrators continued to shout at each other even after the violence subsided.

    The Palestinian Authority has been unable to pay the salaries of civil servants since taking office more than three months ago. The financial crisis has caused severe hardship throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

    Hamas is broke in the wake of U.S. and European sanctions, reports , but it continues to reject international demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel, a move which might remove the sanctions and restore aid.

    Most of the demonstrators were believed to be members of Fatah, the rival movement of President Mahmoud Abbas which Hamas defeated in January legislative elections.

    The infighting between the two groups is part of a deepening power struggle that has raised fears of civil war, reports . Nearly two dozen Palestinians have been killed in armed clashes between the two groups over the past month.

    Parliament speaker Abdel Aziz Duaik, a top Hamas official, fled the hall under heavy guard shortly before the crowd burst in. Several hundred demonstrators had gathered just outside, shouting slogans and waving banners.

    "I'm not coming back until they leave," Duaik said as he rushed out.

    Order was restored after about 45 minutes, and the parliamentary session resumed.

    Participants said Wednesday's Haniyeh-Abbas talks focused on Hamas' controversial private militia. Hamas deployed the 3,000-member force last month, setting off weeks of bloodshed. Abbas has demanded the force be disbanded.

    Haniyeh said Abbas had agreed to incorporate the militia into the regular police force in Gaza. But he declined to say when this might take place. Hamas has twice pledged to remove the militia out of public places, but it remains in position.

    The wider dialogue between Fatah and Hamas has concentrated on a plan that calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel and in effect recognizes the Jewish state.

    Abbas believes the plan gives the Palestinians a way to form a united political front. But if the talks fail, he has scheduled a July 26 referendum on the plan, over Hamas' objections. Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, wants changes in the language of the document, but Abbas says it will not be revised.

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